Friday, October 2, 2009

The right pitch to suburbanites

The words "white flight" are rightly found in every story on Detroit's decline, but the parallel phenomenon of black flight (mostly of the middle class) is routinely ignored. Yet it's the latter phenomenon that's driving the city's present population loss. Just look at the numbers*. In 2000, there were 775,772 African Americans living in Detroit. In 2008, there were only 651,762. That's a decrease of 16% in just 8 years.

If the city hopes to stem the tide, it needs to assuage the concerns of people like John Simpson. In a column on Gotryke (recently posted to DYes), he explains why he lives in the suburbs despite his love for all things Detroit, from Aretha Franklin to Faygo to Coleman Young. In three words: he had kids. So he moved to a better school district with safer streets. Sure, he'd love to be back in the D, and he might pitch in if the city were really on the rebound ... but until then he'll sit on the sidelines and watch from the suburbs.

For a committed Detroiter, it's a frustrating sentiment to hear. If he cares so much, why doesn't he move back now and work to make the city better? But the unfortunate truth is that the burden lies on the residents and leaders who remain -- not to fix all the city's ills, but to change the trajectory of the city from unremitting decline to hope and rebirth. Johnson writes, "I would move home in a heartbeat if I believed that Detroit was moving in the right direction, was meeting those challenges head-on, and was on a path toward better schools, safer streets and 'a better quality of life.'”

He's not a lost cause. He's not harboring racial animus. He's not pining for the return of Hudson's and other relics of the past. He just wants a good neighborhood where his kids can learn and play safely, and there are many others who only ask the same.

What the city needs to do -- what residents and leaders need to work toward -- is proving, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, that Detroit's becoming a better place to live. Not that it's perfect, not that's it the same as the suburbs, but that it's moving in a direction worth committing oneself to. Then Detroit will have a story worth telling to all the people who'd like to live in Detroit, if only.

*The estimate for 2008 comes from the American Community Survey. I note this because it pegs Detroit's current population at 777,493 -- far below SEMCOG's estimate of 830,000 and even farther below the U.S. Census estimate of 912,062. If the ACS is lowballing the population, then it's also exaggerating the extent of black flight. The phenomenon is still real, but the rate of flight may be less than 16%.


Jim said...

Cooper –

The admonitions to stay, or come, and commit to Detroit always have a sense of spirit, energy, commitment, and other logics and emotions that variously inspire and motivate. Yet, the experience on the ground has none of this lightness.

Commitment to Detroit – as in your example, never really flagging even when moving out – eventually becomes a real burden. It seems that at some point in the commitment you become weighed down by the city's relentless momentum toward self-destruction and, yearning to actually experience good and make a mark in your life, come to a decision that out-migration seems the only productive path.

As you point out, despite 40 years of various levels of individual and grass-roots commitments, and despite changes in political and administrative power, there isn't a segment of the population yet showing growth.

There is, of course, a real need to develop grass-roots commitments, and there is real potential power and influence in their localized impact. I have come to believe, however, that these efforts will never have real success in our case has to start with the formulation, visibility, energy and commitment of a coordinated, collaborative and diverse leadership.

There needs to be a critical mass of voices at the top that articulates a believable level of care and integrity, and a long vision, to not just help orient, support and nurture individual and small group strength but to also call attention and demonstrate to a national and global audience that this city is on a truly new and different track in all aspects.

Tija Spitsberg said...

It's true that good schools, safe neigborhoods, and the opportunity to cultivate independence are motivators for moving to the suburbs. However, I moved to the suburbs in 1979, after living in Detroit since 1974. (I had moved here from Pittsburgh, although I am essentially and Iowan. My reason for moving to Grosse Pointe Park was that buying a flat in the "Cabbage Patch" gave me the perceived assurance that the house would not loose value, the fact that I was already shopping for groceries there. (I was living on Hubbard Street in Southwest Detroit, no less.) And I could jog and ride my bike right in the neigborhood. A downtown for those wanting great restaurants and a night life is fine, but building up neighborhoods with viable services is what will bring Detroit back. Actually, although I have moved three times within the Park, I have always lived within one block (or less) of the Detroit city limits. By the way, your blog is great. I think you've got a book that would be of interest beyond the city limits and would draw a national audience.